Dread is not always a bad thing. Take this past NBA offseason, which, at least superficially, was awash in good vibes. The prevailing sense was that it made the league healthier and more entertaining. But the reason the 2019-20 season is so hotly anticipated is that this newfound sense of well-being is actually quite precarious. Some of the biggest names in the league are at a crossroads, and what happens next could very well define their career going forward, or at least shape the narrative around them for the foreseeable future. The upside is tremendous. But at the same time, there’s plenty that could go wrong. We’re eager to see both what’s created and how destruction can be averted.
Nowhere is this more true than in Houston. When the Rockets traded for Russell Westbrook, they set into motion one of the most ambitious, and possibly foolhardy, on-court experiments in recent memory. Getting rid of 34-year-old Chris Paul, who makes a ton of money and, at this point, is best suited for doing things that the Rockets don’t like to do, was a no-brainer. Taking on Westbrook, though, was itself an insanely bold move. The longtime Thunder All-Star is one of the most dynamic players in the league. His will to win is undeniable. But Westbrook is an unruly, impulsive presence who is notoriously difficult to build around. He’s had trouble meshing with talented teammates. And the 11th year guard, whose hell-bent style of play is hardly built for longevity, is under contract through at least 2022 on what remains of a $205 million contract.
Any team taking on Westbrook would face a host of challenges. The Rockets, though, may have been the single most unlikely landing spot for the former MVP, due almost entirely to the presence of former OKC teammate—and fellow former MVP—James Harden. The Rockets’ system, which began as a vehicle designed to accommodate their franchise player’s unique skill-set and considerable quirks, has evolved (or maybe devolved) into a joyless, cynical, forbidding exercise in inevitability: Harden holds the ball as the clock runs down, Harden creates off the dribble with seconds left to spare, and, more often than not, Harden drives the lane with hopes of creating contact. That he’s one of the most inventive and, when he wants to be, frankly dazzling players in the league is only occasionally evident, as Harden has himself become machinery.
At this point, slotting nearly any player of consequence into this latest version of the Rockets’ attack would be a stretch. That’s why Paul, who is expected in Oklahoma City to revive his standing as one of, if not the, strongest playmakers in the league, became dispensable. There’s just not much room for anyone other than Harden to assert themselves. Introducing Westbrook into this environment borders on inconceivable, if not ludicrous. Both him and Harden are ball-dominant point guards (if that destination even means anything these days) who look to score as a matter of course. Neither is much inclined to establish a “flow of the game” or play off of teammates. And while both put up high assist numbers, they also both generally operate on an island until they absolutely have to make a pass. It’s hard to imagine how these two would fit together at all, much less in the current iteration of Houston’s system, even with out-of-the-box tinkerer Mike D’Antoni on the sidelines.
"Putting him on the Rockets is like using a nuclear bomb as a form of civic planning."
But the Rockets’ decision to go all in on this backcourt makes it pretty clear that they aren’t looking to merely stick with the program. Coming off of another disappointing postseason, the front office had to do something, and they didn’t appear willing to fire D’Antoni (though his contract has yet to be extended). That they traded for a player of Westbrook’s caliber makes it clear that the Rockets were looking to shake things up; that they ended up with the game’s premier chaos agent, who is practically assured to wreak havoc on their meticulous system, shows just how far the Rockets were willing to take this impulse. Adding Westbrook is an extreme measure that necessitates a drastic reimagining of nearly everything about how the Rockets operate, to such a degree that any attempt to fall back on their strategy of the last few seasons.
What makes all of this presumably self-conscious destruction so notable is that, more than any team in the league, the Rockets had purported to have it all figured out. Where the team had ended up by the of last season’s playoffs was a logical endpoint, the final form of their attempts to optimize Harden’s strengths. That it was formulaic, predictable, and often lifeless mattered less than the fact that it worked. It was both based on the math and had the math to back it up. The Rockets may not have felt that they’d hit on the answer to winning basketball games. But they believed that had figured out the best way to win games with Harden. Then they decided it was time to try something new.
Getting Westbrook, though, takes the Rockets out of the realm of retooling or revision. Adding this disruptive of a player doesn’t just mean large-scale changes are in order. By his very nature, Westbrook shifts the paradigm of the paradigm. Bringing a player this disruptive into the fold seemingly contradicts the idea that there could be a single answer to the problem posed by the sport of basketball, or even that the sport of basketball can be conceived of as a problem to be solved in an orderly fashion. Westbrook, while predictable in his own way, is constitutionally incapable of moving in lockstep or buying wholesale into such a circumscribed notion of the game. Putting him on the Rockets is like using a nuclear bomb as a form of civic planning. The very intent is to annihilate, or at least supremely destabilize, what was there before, to such a degree that what comes next must follow an entirely new set of rules and logic.
Much will be made of how much onus the Rockets have put on Harden and Westbrook to be on their best behavior and learn to co-exist. A lot also depends on what D’Antoni can come up with, which hopefully doesn’t involve staggering the two All-Stars in the way he routinely did Harden and Paul. Certainly, Harden and Westbrook—and to a lesser degree, D’Antoni—finishing 2018-19 on a bad note and are expected to redeem themselves next season because that’s how sports works. But what’s exciting about the Rockets is that, having totally laid waste to both their old way of thinking and even the possibility of thinking that way, are in an ideal position to create something new. If before their approach was the strip away much of what’s spontaneous, unpredictable, and energizing about the sport in hopes of boiling basketball down into a single equation, with Westbrook they’re now forced to embrace those aspects. The question isn’t whether the Rockets will come through. It’s whether, given what the front office has set into motion, Harden and Westbrook will be able what to do with the great and terrible freedom they’ve been granted.
Originally Appeared on GQ